BETWEEN FRIENDS: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975
Reading their books, it's hard to imagine them as friends. Novels like The Group and short stories such as those collected in The Company She Keeps glitter with Mary McCarthy's (1912-1989) gift for social observation and cutting comedy, but they also reveal remarkably little compassion for her characters, who are usually a lot dumber than their author. McCarthy's criticism, which made her one of the most feared intellectuals in American letters, dissects her subjects' inadequacies with a scary zest. She seems an unlikely person to get close to.
Hannah Arendt (1906-75), by contrast, in works like The Human Condition and Men In Dark Times displays a reluctance to make hasty moral judgments, and even her most dauntingly tangled sentences have a quality of human engagement that McCarthy's coldly accessible prose often lacks. Arendt's intellect was certainly as formidable as McCarthy's, and those who met her sometimes found her arrogant, but she had also a knowledge of life's ambiguities, born from her experiences as a Jew deeply influenced by German philosophy, and as a refugee from Nazism who lived by her wits in France and in America.
How intriguing, then, to discover from their correspondence -- edited by McCarthy's biographer, Carol Brightman -- that not only were the two women devoted to each other, but that McCarthy poured into her letters a warmth and charm she seems to have reserved for her private life. "The discrepancy between public image and actual person is greater in your case than in any other I know of," Arendt wrote to her in 1971, although she apparently didn't realize that this discrepancy was largely the result of a deliberate restraint in McCarthy's published work.
Writing of her novel A Charmed Life in 1954, McCarthy remarked, "It has a 'personal' note that troubles me," going on to characterize Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as being "almost embarrassingly there in their novels and George Eliot's heroines as having "an ungainly, almost mawkish likeness to the author." This was not her ideal, and on the rare occasions when she allowed herself to express emotion in print -- most notably in a defense of Arendt's controversial Eichmann In Jerusalem -- she was later mortified, writing to her friend, "I should have shown more caution."
This caution, I think, prevents McCarthy's fiction from rising above the level of brilliant satire, and it also mars her criticism. She frequently sounds like a schoolteacher giving a lecture rather than a flesh-and-blood individual grappling with another human being's ideas. The fascination of McCarthy's letters arises from seeing the personal roots of her convictions. In a 1971 letter, she writes: "I rather agree with Kant...that stupidity is caused, not by brain failure, but by a wicked heart.... One cannot help feeling that this mental oblivion is chosen, by the heart or the moral will -- an active preference, and that explains why one is so irritated by stupidity." In the gradual transition from "I" to "one," you can hear McCarthy moving from a more modest, personal statement to the sort of savage, sweeping indictment for which her reviews are famous.
Arendt's less polished epistles also bear the imprint of her strong character, but unlike McCarthy's go no deeper than the personality already familiar from her published work. As Arendt herself acknowledges on several occasions, her letters were often "written somewhat hastily and impatiently" (some were dictated), and she frequently remarks that she would prefer to discuss the matter at hand with her friend in person. It's clear that the philosopher's most careful thinking and writing was reserved for her books. The prose in her correspondence is telegraphic; she often begins paragraphs with a topic phrase, as though outlining an essay.
Arendt's dimmer presence is partly due to the fact that the collection contains fewer of her letters, although it's unclear whether this is because some have been lost or she simply wrote less often. Hints of her personal style do come through in her charmingly idiosyncratic spelling ("whig" for "wig") and her habit of hyphenating nouns ("Haldeman-Article," "Vietnam-book"), which give her letters a Germanic flavor appropriate for someone who was never wholly assimilated into American life. And when she does settle down to write at length, she seldom minces words. Though the intellectual exchanges here are usually less stimulating than more carefully worked out passages in each woman's published books, their deep mutual affection allowed these two very different woman to be satisfyingly blunt with each other. During the tense negotiations with their respective spouses that preceded McCarthy's 1961 marriage to James West (an official at the US Embassy in Warsaw), Arendt was supportive, but calmly disagreed when McCarthy sent a rather hysterical letter complaining, "it is simply too ridiculous for us to be the passive foils of other people". On the contrary, Arendt replied, "It seems to me rather obvious that you both are the victims of your own, self-chosen past."
Throughout the collection, such passing comments as "[your article] is very very close to things that I have been thinking about in recent years" show how frequently their interests ran along similar lines. They were drawn together by a world view combining left-of-center politics with a belief in the importance of excellence--which occasionally veered towards trivial snobbery (McCarthy on office workers) and borderline racism (Arendt on black students). Most crucially, they shared a deep concern with moral questions raised by the public and political life that informs their extensive discussions of the Vietnam War -- against which McCarthy took an early stand, particularly principled for someone married to a government official -- and of Watergate. Casual asides about current events (Arendt, speaking of the 1960 political conventions, calls "the whole thing rather fun and television a blessing") are also revealing about American intellectual life of the period.
There is also plenty of the razor-sharp gossip about literary friends (from the Partisan Review crowd to Italian intellectuals with "no sense of the social at all.... Nothing between the family and the street") for which McCarthy was noted. Arendt liked to dish too, but was less interested in psychological analysis; a letter following her husband's death in 1970 describes her grief in terse, primarily physical terms. Carol Brightman's capable footnotes identify people and writings mentioned, although it would have been helpful in several cases if they had also briefly sketched an article's content, so as to make McCarthy's and Arendt's comments on it clearer. In general, however, the annotations help illuminate the relationship between these two remarkable women, and the mid-20th century life they helped shape.